Porcupine quills were used by Northeastern Native Americans for decorative purposes prior to European contact. Many early explorers when describing the Indians they encountered in what is now Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Labrador mention the porcupine quillwork the Native Americans used as ornamentation. Porcupines are large rodents with defensive spines or quills on the body and tail. The quills stand up and come out easily when touched by an aggressor such as a dog or a bobcat.
PHOTO DESCRIPTIONS: please click individual photo to see entire picture
An early bow shaped loom with quills woven over moose tendon and an early (C/1750-1860) quillwork on birchbark box (items in collection of Mt Kersarge Museum, NH)
Birchbark handkerchief basket with 2 quillwork hummingbirds by Paul St John, Passamaquoddy/Mohawk - Sold
A MicMac quillwork birchbark box, C/1850-80 with the 8 legged starfish design, (available on this website store, in Vintage Maine Indian Items section)
Basket with birchbark medallion on lid, a porcupine of porcupine quill work on the medallion by Jeremy Frey - SOLD
Basket with birchbark medallion on lid, "4 Directions/5 crafts" (one craft being the quillwork arrows) by Otter, Passamaquoddy - SOLD
The earliest known written mention of Northeast quillwork was in a 1606 work by a French explorer, Marc Lescarbot. He described MicMac men and women near Cape Breton, Nova Scotia wearing porcupine quillwork necklaces, bracelets, belts and on "scarves". He wrote that some of the quills were "dyed and as lively as they can be". He did not describe the designs nor the techniques used to make them, nor the method of dying them.
There are six documented ways porcupine quills were used in the 1600's. The simplest was cutting off the very ends of a quill and stringing a thread of sinew through it, more quills and/or shell beads (or later glass beads) were added to make earrings, necklaces, bracelets, anklets etc. Weaving with quills was done on a bow shaped loom with quills woven over moose tendon making bands of varying width which were then sewn onto leather clothing such as moccasins. Quills were also flattened and wrapped around objects such as knife handles where different color quills could be inserted to make an imbricated design or quills were wrapped around a tendon or narrow strip of leather to become colorful fringe on leather items such as bags or armbands. Plaiting or braiding quills made an elaborate and complex pattern, these braids were then wrapped around objects such as pipe stems. Quill stitchery/embroidery was used on leather items and done by punch holes in the leather with an awl to form the pattern desired and a thread of sinew was then pushed through the awl hole. The quills were then folded and twisted over, under and around the sinew in varied designs which could be curved or straight or incorporate both. Finally there was quill work on birchbark, perhaps the best known type of the Northeastern tribes both historically and currently. Quill work can be affixed and incorporated into birchbark items using a few different techniques.
From the 1600's and likely earlier elaborate quillwork decorated birchbark boxes of every shape and size. Model and/or toy birch bark canoes sported quill work from just a dyed single quill on either size of a small toy canoe, to larger models completely covered with intricate quill designs. While none survive, there is speculation that early river and ocean going birch bark canoes may have been decorated with quillwork. In the late 1700's to the late 1800's other quill decorated birchbark items made to sell or trade included cradles, trunks, chair backs, tea cozies, card cases, pin cushions, place mats, ladies pocketbooks (reticules) and more that were made from birchbark or had birchbark panels incorporated into the item.
Currently there are very few quill workers among the Northeastern tribes / the Wabanaki (an alliance including the Abenaki, Maliseet, MicMac, Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot tribes). I know of none doing quill loom-weaving, quill wrapping or plaiting.
Current Northeastern porcupine quill workers
Gina Brooks, Passamaquoddy - quill boxes
Aaron Evans, Abenaki, - quill stitchery/embroidery on leather
Robert (Robbie) McEwan, MicMac (Mi'kmaq; Canadian Spelling) - quill boxes
Paul St John, Passamaquoddy/Mohawk - quill boxes, quill medallions on sweetgrass coil baskets, quill stitchery on leather (moccasins, barrettes, bags & more), strung quill & bead necklaces and earrings - and more
Joyce Tomah, Passamaquoddy - strung quill & bead necklaces and earrings
Some Maine Indian basketmakers have done quillwork which they incorporate into baskets - examples by Jeremy Frey, and Eric Otter Bacon, both Passamaquoddy are shown in photos above. Ganessa, Penobscot, has also used quillwork to enhance some of her baskets. There may be other Maine Indian basketmakers who have also added quillwork to their baskets. These artists are known for and think of themselves as basketmakers. But as the work shown above proves, they are also fine quillworkers.
Do you know of any current Northeastern Native American quill worker I missed? I would love to include more quill workers - so please email me about them including their name, tribe and a website where there work can be viewed. Also looking for web-based resources on NE Native American quill work - so I can put links here for people to learn more. I have been unable to find any, so email me if you have some suggestions. I will view and add them here.
Micmac Quillwork by Ruth Whitehead Holmes, The Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, NS 1982
The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, 1932, reprinted with color plates by The Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, ME 2003